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Interviews with Frenemies: Central Michigan

The Chippewas have one more major test before MAC play

Sep 1, 2022; Stillwater, Oklahoma, USA; Central Michigan Chippewas tight end Joel Wilson (83) makes a catch during the third quarter against Oklahoma State Cowboys at Boone Pickens Stadium. Oklahoma State won 58-44.  Brett Rojo-USA TODAY Sports

Penn State plays host to its second MAC opponent in Saturday’s non-conference finale. Central Michigan is 2-1 and coming off a 41-0 win against Bucknell. James Jiminez covers the Chippewas for Hustle Belt and took a few moments to answer some questions about the team.

1. CMU closed last year on a great run including a win in the Sun Bowl against Washington State, what were the expectations entering this season?

Expectations were fairly high, to say the least. It’s hard not to be optimistic about the direction of a team after they’ve beaten supposedly superior competition on a neutral ground, even with all the departures. The major assumption was that Jim McElwain and his staff would find the answers to the questions which faced them— whether that was on-roster or not.

Suffice to say a 1-2 start, which may well be 1-3 after Saturday, was certainly not in the cards for how this season was going to go. The schedule lined up favorably in the preseason, with many matchups CMU could do well to be competitive in. Suddenly, looking at the table as it stands now, it’s a lot scarier than it used to be.

2. Saturday saw the Chippewas get their first win. What did you see that was improved in that game compared to their first two outings, specifically a disappointing Week 2 loss to South Alabama?

It’s hard to say there were improvements, honestly.

It looked much similar to the messes which were Weeks 1 and 2. CMU went into the half up 7-0 over a Bucknell squad who was 1-10 in Patriot League play last season in one of the worst halves of football I’ve seen in my 11 years as a CMU devotee and writer.

But goodness gracious, I’m being much too negative, aren’t I? There were certainly improvements you liked to see, especially on the defensive side. Without any 2021 returnees in the secondary, a lot of new faces made plays at the corner and safety positions, including Lavario Wiley, Caleb Spann and Ronald Kent Jr., pitching a shutout and forcing a completion percentage of around 50 on a team who was forced to pass the ball a lot, while Michael Heldman continued to be a revelation at the edge spot as a redshirt freshman, disrupting the backfield in both the run and pass games.

3. Jim McElwain has a solid background as an offensive coordinator, what should Penn State be prepared to defend on Saturday?

CMU wants to reach 38 points in most contests; that’s where they feel they can win games comfortably. This means a steady dose of the power run game with Lew Nichols to eat up yards and clock, then throwing the ball outside to big possession receivers on play action to hit paydirt. In years past, they also utilized the screen game and short yardage pass plays to retain possession, but with Hard Knocks star Kalil Pimpleton graduated and Dallas Dixon out for the season with an arm injury, that part will be a work-in-progress.

Penn State will have to choose one of Jalen McGaughy or Carlos Carriere (a former Maryland receiver) to lock down on, as both those guys have the size and speed to match up with Power 5 competition; they duo combined for three touchdowns against OK State in Week 1. If they can do that and keep the offense one-dimensional, CMU will have no choice but to try and depend on Lew for yardage, and that’s a matchup PSU should win handily if it gets to that.

CMU always seeks balance out of their pro multiple look, so Penn State will have to be aware enough to not allow any quarter, lest they give CMU an opening to exploit it.

4. Coming off a shutout, what do the Chips feel best about with their defense?

I talked about it a little bit at the end in the second question, but the part which inspires me the most about the defense is the front seven. It’s a unit which is fairly disciplined in filling up inside run gaps and creating outside pressure on passing downs.

CMU was a havoc-causing front last year, finishing as a Top 25 defense and Top 5 in both sacks and tackles-for-loss. They love to get after you and make you feel uncomfortable— even if it means maybe letting up a big play in the middle of the field. Former Valdosta State transfer Thomas Incoom and redshirt freshman Michael Heldman have been dynamite as a pairing, each registering 4.5 tackles-for-loss, with Incoom picking up three sacks and Heldman claiming 1.5 sacks, including one of the strip variety.

Turnover luck has been harsh to this defense so far, but they’re still at the very least efficient in forcing teasm to put, giving up just 28 percent of third downs which have come their way so far this season. There’s a lot to like here, even if the first few games weren’t kind.

5. Any keys or predictions for Saturday?

I don’t like being in the predictions business; it’s not really my bag. But I will say the key for CMU in pulling off an upset in this potential trap game is to get on their horse early; they’ve struggled the last three games in putting up first-half points, posting 15, 10 and 7 in each respective game. That produced unfavorable game flow for the Chips, forcing them to play from behind a lot of the time as the defense struggled to adjust. If their offense can look halfway decent to start, it should give them confidence to stay in it.

Penn State, meanwhile, can’t relent on CMU; they’ve gone from unranked to #14 in just two weeks on the strength of a gutsy Purdue win and a mauling of an ailing Auburn Tigers on the road, and losing here would be extremely detrimental to any title aspirations this team might be having. They must focus on their strengths and take CMU out of the game early. Letting CMU hang around is bad news, as this Chips team has been a notoriously second-half unit under McElwain’s tenure.

We want to thank James and the fine folks at Hustle Belt for contributing this year. Check out their blog for all of your #MACtion.